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Hurricane Matthew: a Net Manager's Perspective

Prognosticators last week had the eye of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm, over the West Palm Beach area near to where I live, and so thoughts of preparedness have been very much on my mind. Fortunately their predictions were off... by a little over 20 miles to the east, and Matthew gained speed and blew through ahead of schedule.

Still, I've gleaned many lessons in preparedness from this storm.

For example, Governor Rick Scott encouraged people in the storm's path to re-locate to the center of Florida or otherwise away from the storm, but he did not say they should leave the state. With a mass coastal exodus, key roads can become jammed, and outrunning a storm isn't always viable. In Matthew's case, the storm picked up speed and by late Wednesday afternoon gasoline was gone or only available in premium grades.

On midday Tuesday, we received notice that Palm Beach County officials ordered schools closed on Thursday and Friday in order to prepare them for use as shelters. This was a signal for network managers to act without delay.

According to the National Hurricane Center, a Category 4 storm has sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph. At such speeds, catastrophic damage will occur -- the wind will snap or uproot trees and knock down utility poles. Power outages can last weeks to possibly months, leaving the area uninhabitable throughout the duration.

Category 4 and 5 hurricanes present significant challenges for utility companies due to the extreme wind conditions. These high winds fall trees and blow out transformers, as they did in Stuart, Fla., Thursday evening in a seemingly domino effect. This is when shutting down the network and unplugging gear from the AC power supply proves best practice. Transformers blow and when they do, surges can easily damage anything down the line.

Another reason for taking down the network is to preserve battery backup systems. Unattended batteries can swell, and having to replace battery packs becomes an unwelcome expense. We also shut down all desktop computers and printers and removed them from the AC power source, and then covered the desktops and equipment cabinets with trash bags in the event of leaky roofs.

Preparedness must take into account more than the physical facility. We also gave key personnel copies of the credentials and contact information for services, providers, and contractors. Fortunately, we could rely on the backup configurations of equipment and systems we already had in place for disaster recovery, with data backup to the cloud. These are the kinds of details you don't want to have to worry about after receiving notice that roads will likely be closed for the next two days and the area is likely to be ravaged.

Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I would recommend MyRadar. This was the app I found most useful during this emergency, as I used it to keep informed about Matthew's location and the storm's path.

In any emergency preparedness plan, action and timing is key -- in this case, Matthew moved faster than predicted, and could have devastated south Florida. Businesses supporting the community were effective in delivering closings and providing information about re-openings. I also noted that carriers were effective in communicating with customers, as were the utility companies.

The other important things to remember are not to develop a false sense of security or rely too heavily on technology. In this case, de-energizing equipment was the practical course of action, in an attempt to save gear and neutralize negative power influence. Category 4 hurricanes can't be managed, but reactions to potential disasters can. The best defense in the arsenal of technology is the cloud, with delivery of key apps, data, email, messaging, and voice services all available from cloud providers.

Along with many others, I am grateful for this storm's passing. Recovering from such a disastrous event is difficult to imagine. Re-assessing any weakness or vulnerability that you discover during an emergency will certainly help during the next response. For most, whether to rebuild or relocate is the heartfelt question that needs answering... and this, again, is where the cloud defense provides the tools to do so.

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